- Nancy Bond and Welsh Traditions
In 1977, Nancy Bond's first novel, A String in the Harp, was named a Newbery Honor Book and won the Tir na n-Og Award from the Welsh National Centre for Children's Literature as the best English book with an authentic Welsh background. The main characters in A String in the Harp, an American university professor teaching at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and his three children, live in twentieth-century Wales but slowly become aware of a connection to the sixth-century bard, Taliesin. As episodes of the past reveal themselves first to one member of the family and then to others, these contemporary people find their lives being influenced by events and people from the past. Bond does a masterful job of interweaving traditional beliefs and stories with contemporary people and places so that two series of almost completely separate events intertwine and reverberate together, with important consequences for both. [End Page 33]
One of the professor's children, twelve-year-old Peter, finds an ancient tuning key for a bard's harp. The Key (Bond capitalizes it throughout) is magical, and soon Peter begins to see episodes from the life of Taliesin. During the winter months, he sees almost all of Taliesin's life and realizes, toward the end of the novel, that it is in his duty to return the Key to its rightful owner. To complicate matters, his older sister fears for his sanity, and there is a museum archeologist who suspects that the Key exists and very much wants it for the National Museum in Cardiff. Peter must find a way to return the Key to Taliesin before the museum archeologist, Dr. Owen, can be sure enough of its existence to force Peter to hand it over.
Before Nancy Bond could interweave the story of Taliesin with the story of the Morgan family, she had to sort through some very old Welsh literature. Bond selected materials from the various stories and poems about or by Taliesin, and where there was a gap, she invented her own material. In an author's note to A String in the Harp, she acknowledged this:
The life of Taliesin that the Key shows Peter is what I have imagined his real story to be. It is my own version. To my knowledge there is no harp key, and it is not known where Taliesin is buried.(369)
Thus, while it is generally agreed that Taliesin was a bard of the sixth century and while several manuscripts agree on some of the details of his life, there was much for Bond to interweave before she could present a smooth, chronological story.
Her first move was to omit the most magical or mythological elements of Taliesin's story. According to Bond's version, a boy named Gwion Bach was born into a poor farming family with whom he lived until he was twelve. He was then taken away by an old blind man, educated in the bardic tradition, and selected by Ceridwen, who gave him the name "Taliesin" and assigned him to accompany the poet, Aneirin (also an historical bard of approximately the same era). In "The Tale of Gwion Bach," as translated by Patrick Ford, there is a much more mythic account of Taliesin's origins. Ceridwen, in this story the wife of a nobleman, had an extremely ugly son whom she would make into a prophet—as he would get by in the world in no other way. She gathered the requisite herbs, put them in a cauldron, and hired an old blind man to stir the brew. The old man's boy, Gwion Bach, shoved the ugly boy aside at the right moment, received the magical drops, and was filled with wisdom. Enraged, Creidwen pursued him. He changed into various shapes to elude her; she changed into various complementary shapes to continue pursuit. Finally, he changed into a grain of wheat, and she, having changed into a hen, swallowed him. Nine months later, he was born again. She could not then harm him, and so she set him adrift. The people who found him, impressed...